Run, Hide, Shelter, Fight

On April 19, 1999 my mom took me to the doctor because I woke up with ear pain that wasn’t going away. My doctor diagnosed me with an ear infection. He put me on a round of antibiotics and told me to stay home from school the next day. I was grateful because the pain was pretty intense and I tossed and turned all night. I woke up late the next morning. My mom was at work, a note stuck to the refrigerator said to call her if I needed anything. I was a junior in high school and I scoffed at the note: “Love, Mom”. Geez, mom, I’m fine, I can take care of myself. I made myself a bowl of cereal and set up shop on our old, comfy couch. I grabbed the remote control and flicked on the television. I’m not sure what was on tv. Maybe Price is Right, maybe one of those daytime talk shows, Sally Jessy Raphael or Geraldo, was he on the air then? I flipped the channel between bites of off-brand lucky charms, stopping occasionally at a funny commercial or to raise my hand to my throbbing ear, did I take my medicine already? At about 11:30 a.m. I stopped on Channel 9, KBMC, the local ABC affiliate in Kansas City, because something caught my attention. The scene showed a SWAT team, with automatic weapons drawn, running into a high school in Colorado.

The tragedy that unfolded in front of me that day on KMBC, was the catalyst for my high school to implement a safety protocol for an active shooter situation. I suspect Columbine, and the 15 students fatally wounded, was a catalyst for many schools across the country to implement comprehensive safety plans. To teach their children how to respond in an emergency situation. Bombs. Active shooters. School Emergency Response Plans. School Preparedness. They assessed by color. Code Black. Yellow. Red. Blue. Unsafe odor. Lockdown. Even for a Kansas kid, this was a lot. Kansas kids are used to drills. Leavenworth kids were able to tell the difference between a tornado siren and an inmate escape siren. We knew when the doors to school locked. We remembered when the doors to our school didn’t lock. We wrestled with our anxiety. Our constant barrage of drills, butting up against our desire to be cool and unbothered. The day after the Columbine High School shooting, though, things changed.

Our lunch room chat was spent on deciding with your best friends where you would meet if it ever happened to us. We all developed our own action plans, unbeknownst to each other. Those of us in the journalism room, we knew how to lift the handle of the dark room just right to jam it a little. We knew it would buy us time. We started getting cell phones. Little brick Nokias with emergency numbers and a game with a long snake. Active Shooter Drills became commonplace. We dreaded them. We stood in lines across the street from the school as the administrators would “sweep” the classrooms. We laughed and talked. Secretly assessing who we thought would be wearing long, black trench coats at our school. Our teachers told us to be quiet. They listened intently on their walkie talkies for the all-clear. We joked and made fun of their seriousness. But inside, we were a mess.

At home my mother would want to know what happened. “Where do they send you?” she’d ask, as she sloshed mashed potatoes onto my dinner plate. “How will you call me at work?” I’d shrug off her questions. “Stop worrying, nothing is going to happen at our school.” Still, she asked more. She started to leave detailed instructions on the fridge for me after school. Chores, directions to start dinner, anything to keep me home, keep me safe. “Call me if you need anything,” they would say. “Love, Mom.”

I stopped sleeping altogether. My anxiety crept up. Panic attacks started. Once I was in the back of our library. I was working on a research project. It was the big one. The last big project before school was out for summer. I was doing a close reading of a poem. I was engrossed in the book I had, sitting along the back wall, the stacks covering my view of either door. I heard a loud bang. My heart leapt into my throat. I froze. A moment later the librarian walked around, looking for each of us, asking if we were okay. She said someone slammed a door across the hall. We smiled, eased our backs into our chairs again Laughed a little. “We’re fine,” we said. “Totally good”. We were not fine. We were not totally good.

Years later I was sitting in a classroom at Missouri State University when my professor came into the room in a panic and told us to evacuate. She saw a man walking into the building with a gun. By this time I was a mother. I had a toddler at home. I froze again. Someone tapped me on the arm, “Let’s go!” We all ran down to the basement of the building. We grabbed our phones, waited for the all-call. The text to come in. The beeping and the signal: Run. Hide. Shelter. Fight. This was drilled into our head from the first day. That familiar feeling crept up into my throat just as my teacher walked down the stairs. The man was a plain-clothed officer, she explained. He forgot to notify anyone that he was coming into the building, and he hadn’t taken his gun off his hip. She felt bad for overreacting. She was clearly distraught. I hugged her. I didn’t mind her overreaction.

In grad school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, we had routine preparedness thrown at us. Text messages would go out, followed by emails. Drills. Make sure the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) has your cell phone number. Make sure you are getting the Niner Alerts. I was diligent. Drills don’t bother me anymore. Overreacting doesn’t bother me. Be Niner Ready they would say. I was always Niner Ready.

And then the day came when all the practice, all the prep, all the drills became useful. Thankfully I graduated last May. Thankfully I was not on campus last Tuesday. Thankfully I didn’t need to get a Niner Alert. Or sit in a classroom, crouched against the wall, desks stacked up against the door, calling loved ones on the phone to check in, to say that I am okay. But there were people who did. And there were, as we soon learned, people who were not okay.

Kennedy, the building the shooting happened, is a lovely building. I led class discussions in that building when I was a Graduate Assistant for Prospect for Success. I remember that it was very high-tech, for being such an old building. The outside was deceiving. On my first week of grad school, I sat just outside Kennedy, out in the fresh air surrounding the Belk Tower, which was dismantled my second year, wondering how I was so lucky. How I had managed to get into a graduate program. Wondering how I had landed my cool new job at Colvard, the building just across from the Library. My library. Our library. Whose full, bright, stacks I occasionally roamed with no purpose other than to be in the library. To smell the familiar smell of books, and feel the collective tension of students with heads in folders, and in computer screens, and in their own thoughts. Kennedy is near the library. It is near the Career Center. It is right next to the Counseling Center.

I had friends on campus, and thankfully they are all okay. I had friends, professors, former classmates, and fellow Niners. I’ve checked in. I’ve seen their “Marked Safe” flags. I’ve cried for them. For my school, my community, the city that I miss. But, I can’t cry anymore. We can’t cry anymore.

You never think it will happen to people you love. You never think until it just does. And then when it does, all the pain, and all the fear, and all the anger builds up inside of you. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Will this happen again? Why is this okay? I was shocked and afraid on April 20, 1999 as I watched armored officers run into Columbine High School. I was afraid it could happen at my school, to my friends and to me. I was afraid, but I was hopeful. I just knew that this incident would be the one that would make my country work together to ensure that this never happened again. I just knew that our politicians, our representatives, our parents and teachers, the adults in charge, would protect us. Would work together to ensure that every child was safe while they were at school. Yet here we are. Twenty years later and mass shootings at schools and universities have become so commonplace that we don’t even blink an eye. We shake our head and say, “Heaven’s sake” or “Christ, it happened again,” while we make dinner, and help our kids with homework, and turn the channel to a comedy. We send thoughts and prayers. We make memes. We make hashtags.

Honestly, very honestly, I was angry the first time I saw the image on the top of this post. I was very angry. How can they sum up what just happened, hours before, into a picture. It felt too soon. It felt wrong. It felt like it was already made, just sitting there on someone’s hard drive, waiting to have the newest school’s tragedy stamped on it. Yes, I thought, Charlotte is strong. Yes, UNCC will come together and they will mourn and remember. Yes, my school, my community, my people will do the right thing. But what about everyone else?

I don’t want to get too political here. And all I can say is what a million angry mothers and fathers, and teachers and officers have said. We have to do better. And in order to do better we have to make major, sweeping changes to our guns laws, to mental health care, to insurance, to the angry in the community, to how we treat and respond to the bullied, the marginalized, those in poverty, those misunderstood. We have to revamp the systems. The public school system. The higher education system. The welfare system. The foster care system. And I know that is a lot, and I know it makes people afraid because it seems like it can’t be done. But it can, with small steps. It starts in our homes. In our backyards. In our communities. It starts with the way we treat each other every single day. Who we vote into office. Who we allow to represent us. It starts with boots on the ground.

Yesterday another gun attack happened, in another Colorado school. And today, like all the other days after a tragedy like this, we are learning of those killed and wounded. Learning about how they had to run, hide, shelter, and fight. These are children. Children. Children whose parents could not protect them. Whose teachers and administrators and classmates could not protect them. Who may have thought they didn’t need protecting from anything. I can’t stop thinking about the parents. About the mom of the boy, Kendrick Castillo, who tried to stop the gunman. I can’t stop saying his name. Wondering what his mother is going through. What about Riley Howell’s mom? What about Reed Parlier’s mom? They won’t leave their children notes on the refrigerator ever again. No more reminders of appointments, no more directions to bake the lasagna in the oven, no more “Love, Mom”.

I’m not sure what my plans are from here on out. But I have a 10-year-old son, and middle school is fast approaching and I am terrified, y’all. I have been, since April 20, 1999, and you should be too, and together we should work toward a solution. Together we should protect our children, at all costs.

M.

Dear Charlotte

It has taken me a long time to write this. Months, actually. Months of pacing my floorboards well into the night. Months of looking out my window for a sign, anything to come crashing down on me, begging me to stay for a few more weeks, a few more months. Fight more. Make this home. But nothing ever came. It isn’t surprising that it took me so long. It takes me a long time to get anything done. I used to be ashamed of that fact, but since I’ve known you, I’ve learned to appreciate this about myself. It’s not laziness. It’s not lack of motivation. It’s the opposite. It’s because when I invest in something, in someone, I invest my whole damn heart. And when you invest your whole damn heart, well, it takes time. You can’t leave on a whim. You can’t walk away without looking back three or four times. It’s a process. A lengthy, tumultuous process.

It seems silly, contrite, even dramatic, but Christ, I’m going to miss you, Charlotte. I’ve never left anywhere or anyone without wanting to. And even then, it is harder than it seems. When I left Leavenworth, Kansas many moons ago, I did so with a sadness that took me by surprise. It shouldn’t have. It’s true I had been working on my exit for 20 years, but still, I was totally and completely oblivious to what leaving actually meant. Through the entire process, though, I knew I was making the right decision. I knew this is what I had to do in order to launch. In order to learn and grow. So I pushed the sadness down, deep down, covering it with southern fried chicken and Arkansas BBQ.

Ten years later I left Southern Missouri. Again, I left because I knew I needed to. I knew it was the next right step for me, for us. I had a family by then. A husband eager for the adventure I had spent years cultivating in his mind. A five-year-old, on the cusp of kindergarten, a honestness inside him so profound that he didn’t once cry for his home, the only place he had ever known. Because he, like his mommy, craved new experiences, open roads, fun, and light, and merriment. In what seemed like an instant, we packed up a U-Haul, and we drove 1,000 miles in the stifling summer heat along I-40, eastbound. Then we took a right hand turn, and we found you.

Charlotte, my dear, I write this in love, honor, and humility, for I know you deserve more than what my words are capable of. Still, I refuse to carry the burden of forgetting to thank you for what you’ve meant to me these last five years. You were the city, after all, that I longed for. The city whose streets morphed me into the most honest version of myself. The bravest Missy anyone has ever seen.

Charlotte, it didn’t take long to learn how to navigate your patchy pavement, your potholes, and your politics. You wear your heart on your sleeve, waiting, hoping to be opened up by all of those who are willing. You taught me what it meant to be an outsider, to be hoping for acceptance. You taught this midwestern transplant about real, down home, southern hospitality. You taught me about peach cobbler and Cheerwine. You taught me that it is okay to not fit in. Then you taught me how to be accepted. You helped me shrug off the feeling that I was an imposter. A lost girl, tangled up in a city that I didn’t think wanted me, that I didn’t know I wanted.

Charlotte, you allowed me to truly let myself feel like I was a part of something. Which in turn allowed me to give freely of myself. To look past the trepidation of going out into the community, to the places I thought I feared, with the people I thought I feared. You taught me how to take their hands. To give what I had to give. You taught me how to receive what I didn’t know I needed. What I didn’t think I was worthy of. Charlotte, you taught me how to trust people again. You will forever be the place that taught me about the good and the bad of life. To understand those unlike me. To find common ground. You taught me about gentrification, all the horrible, ugly, heavy parts of it. About gratitude. About community. About moving forward together with people who are not like you, but also so very much like you.

Charlotte, I am not ashamed to say that I love you, your faults and all. Some don’t see your beauty. I’ve heard what they say about you. I’ve heard their true fear and ignorance of you. I’ve heard the complaints of your history, and your fast-paced progress. I’ve heard stories of your people, your streets, supposedly littered with graffiti and violence. But that’s not been my experience. Those aren’t the people who really know you, my dear. Those are the people who think they know you. The people too afraid, too out of touch, to get to the bottom of your heart. Too afraid to let their lives get knotted up in your streets and avenues, your museums, your schools, your churches, your neighborhoods, and your people. There isn’t an ounce of aggressiveness in you, Charlotte. There is only love and light, washed with an unmistakable sadness of underserved, underrepresented, undervalued people, trying to work together in the rapid, forward progression that has taken hold. There are people getting lost in the shuffle, Charlotte, but there are also people reaching down and lifting others up.

There are people at your schools who promote life-long learning. There are professors, and instructors, and counselors. There are people at Queens University, at UNC Charlotte. There are people at Idelwild Elementary School, and Thomasboro Academy, and Shamrock Gardens. There are people at CPCC, and The Arts Institute. There are beautiful, bright construction-paper fish lining the windows of Dilworth Elementary and silver robots at Mallard Creek STEM. There are flower beds at Paw Creek and an amazingly fun playground at Villa Heights. There are free lunches, and school picnics. Summer programs and school choirs. There are decorated lockers and national championship sports teams. There are teachers, principals, and bus drivers, that each morning, look into the eyes of their children, and tell them they are welcome. They are loved. And it makes all the difference, Charlotte. Your people make all the difference.

Charlotte, your parks are lovely. Your parks and your nature preserves and your gardens. Autumns at McDowell, down the luminary-lined roads in a wagon, make people feel like you are no longer in a bustling, urban city. Your dog park at Reedy Creek, its mixture of dust, and green, and friendly barking, allows for conversation and friendship, four-legged and two. From the geese who flank the pond at UNC Charlotte, backing up traffic on the roundabout, to the geese who nibble your pretzels at Freedom Park, your wildlife, your serenity, your escapes from the busy city life have calmed many. The excitement of an afternoon walk through Romare Bearden, the children in the fountains, ringing the bells, holding foot races across the wide open lawn, reminds me of my own languid summer days as a child. We’d glide over the beautiful lawn, take in an afternoon of baseball, cheering madly for the Knights, as they’d rally against Durham in the 10th inning. Then head over to Green’s for a chili-cheese dog.

And oh, the food! Charlotte, you are a food-lover’s paradise. From Amelie’s in NoDa to Pike’s in South End, there is a little something for everyone. Lunch at 300 East, dinner at Midwood Smokehouse (the only place this midwesterner can find good, down home, sticky, sweet sauce). Dutch Babies at The Original Pancake House and brunch at Bistro La Bon. Maybe a quick bite off the Pizza Peel buffet, or an order to go from Price’s Chicken Coop or Brooke’s Sandwich House. International House of Prayer offers up homemade specialties during the day, and there is always Midnight Diner, or Pinky’s, or South 21 if you just need good, greasy fries to soothe your soul.

Charlotte, I will miss you festivals and your beer. Your spontaneous parties at OMB and your giant Jenga game at Camp North End. Your Sunday afternoon dates with my 10-year-old at Abari’s Game Bar, where we first introduced him to a Super NES, and your fun hosting of Open Streets, where we were able to see a part of the city that we never had before via one of your many greenways. I will miss walks with my dog into Uptown, though the heavily guarded training fields of the Panthers, onto Trade Street and onward. I will miss the smiling faces at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library – Plaza Midwood branch, and at ImaginOn, where the entire staff seems only there to make my life easier, by helping my son find the Hank the Cowdog series, and tie his shoe, and teach him about projection in his theater class. I will miss your Thanksgiving Day parade, Charlotte, and your street vendors. I will miss the small, but mighty aquarium at Discovery Place. I will miss your weird collection of art and people on Tryon in Uptown, just after the sun has set, but before the bars open. I will miss you “Jesus Saves” guy. I will miss you Phoenix statue, and my desire to take a picture of every visitor to the city in front of it.

Charlotte, you came into my life at a turning point. You saw me through the early days of my son starting kindergarten. You helped me stay busy when my days were more quiet than I liked. You brought me into the fold of UNC Charlotte. You got me through three very long years of grad school, where my brain, my faith in myself, and my commitment were all tested beyond belief. You met me on the other side with the loveliest of new friends and mentors, all working their magic to put that spark back into my life, my writing, and my faith in good people. Kind people, smart, loving people.

Geez, the friends, Charlotte. The friends you gave me. The fun, amazing, lifelong friends, who always seemed to pop up at the perfect time. Some we have lost, more we have gained, but all of them, at some point in the last five years, have looked at me and smiled, a mutual understanding that our time spent together was not in vain. It was not lost on us. On who we are, or how we came to know each other. Or what we will always be, when it’s all said and done, and many, many miles separate us. I’m indebted to you for these lovely people, Charlotte. And much, much more.

Joan Didion once wrote, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” I don’t know if this is what I have done here, Charlotte, but I have certainly tried, and I will certainly continue to try, for as long as you are present in my memory, to claim you, to obsess over you, year after year, month after month, as I drag my feet to say goodbye to the city I have come to love. The city that I have come to call home.

M.

Knights game, April 2018
ImaginOn to see Mary Poppins!
Walk in our neighborhood, Villa Heights
Summer Jam at the Whitewater Center with friends, September 2018
The Green on Tryon

Ren Fest!
Graduation, May 2018
Chinese Lantern Festival at the Botanical Gardens
Building Little Libraries at Free Range Brewing
Scooting at First Ward Park
Hopping on the Blue Line to cruise into Uptown
Poster making before a Hornets game
Halloween in the hood, standing by one of the Little Libraries we helped build!
Building at Discovery Place
Spring soccer with Charlotte YMCA
Dessert in NoDa!
Lunch in South End! #HotTaco
Morning walk to the train station
“Pillows” on The Green
After dinner in Uptown and an evening play session at the ropes of First Ward
Go Panthers!

View from our neighborhood park #TheSunsets